Brussels, Belgium: The Small But Mighty Heart of Europe
Ever wonder who invented fries, waffles, cookie butter, or the saxophone? How about the Smurfs or Tintin? My country is small, often forgotten, but vibrant, dynamic, diverse, and certainly responsible for all of those things. It has a special place in my heart that’s difficult to explain to most people, but Brussels is a city that makes the task so much easier. Its grandeur is exemplified in its classic, stunning architecture, in its food, music, and street fairs. Whether you’re looking for a casual drink on the Grand Place or an enrapturing visit of one of the world’s greatest architectural and scientific feats, the possibilities in Brussels are endless.
Food and Drink
Half of what makes Belgium culturally incomparable is its culinary feats. Chocolate, waffles, fries or beer – they’re all meticulously and artfully produced all over Belgium, and Brussels is no different.
Let’s start with French fries – which are, surprisingly, not French at all! Any good Belgian will proudly tell you that fries were actually invented in Belgium, which is why we make them best. They’re thicker than American fries, and thinner than potato wedges, but most importantly, they’re perfectly golden and always paired with the right sauce. French fries in Belgium are always fried twice, salted, and traditionally eaten with mayonnaise in a cone. If you’re looking for a different flavor, try our spicy Andalouse or tangy Cocktail sauce, but fair warning: you’ll be missing out if you ask for Ketchup. You can find fries like this almost anywhere around the Grand Place in downtown Brussels.
Waffles are also a Belgian invention, but are nothing like what your local iHop or Waffle House call “Belgian waffles”. You can find two different kinds: the Brussels waffle and the Liege waffle. The Brussels waffle, which is rectangular and is crunchier on the outside, is typically paired with icing sugar, whipped cream, chocolate, or different fresh fruit. The Liege waffle has a more irregular shape, is baked with sugar pearls in it, and is consumed plain – trust me, it’s better that way. Although you’re very likely to find it on any dessert menu, you can also stop by the summer fair or a street stand to grab either one of these waffles.
We can’t claim ownership over chocolate, but ours is definitely worth a try. Belgium is known for its rich yet delicate chocolate recipes, and I may be biased, but its taste is truly unlike any other. If you’re just looking for standard, regular chocolate, my recommendation is Cote d’Or, which makes both bars and spreads. If you’re looking for something fancier, Godiva is always a great alternative for pralines. While you’re at it, why not pick up some Speculoos cookies or spread to discover where cookie butter came from!
Last but not least: Beer! Beer is to Belgium what wine is to France – an art. Our country has a long history of creating Trappist beers: beers that are brewed by monks, in their monastery, using the water from the spring in it. The criteria are specific, and the production meticulous. This makes our Trappist beers relatively rare, the rarest being Westvleteren. It’s not sold commercially but through the monastery itself, with a strict buying limit, and was named the best beer in the world. Regardless, whether you choose a Leffe Blonde, a Chimay, or a Lindemans Kriek (a tangy cherry beer), you’ll find that each one comes in its own, specific glass. The shape and opening of the glass contributes to how you smell the beer, and in turn affects how you taste it – pretty particular, huh? In any case, an afternoon spent on a terrace of a bar on the Grand Place sipping on Belgian beer is always one well spent.
If you’re visiting in the summer, the Brussels Fair – la Foire du Midi – is always worth a visit. Whether you want to walk around with a cone of fries in one hand and a waffle in the other, buy some cotton candy, or fish or rubber duckies, the fair is a place that just about anyone can get on board with. You’ll find some insane towers of terror, nausea-inducing rides, haunted houses, and crazy mirror houses. Regardless of what you choose to do, you’ll probably find the perfect activity and just the right snack.
If the fair sounds a little too eccentric or outgoing, Brussels has a lot to offer in terms of architecture and science. The Atomium, a massive atom-shaped building, was constructed for the Expo 1958 World Fair, and represents both architectural and scientific innovation. It even houses what was once the fastest elevator in the world! If you’re not afraid of heights, you can pay a modest ticket fee to visit the Atomium, enjoy the 360 degree view, and explore the various science exhibitions within it. It’s a building full of scientific history, and stands as one of Belgium’s greatest landmarks.
Your trip to Brussels wouldn’t be complete without a visit of the Grand Place. The stunning historical buildings surrounding the square have often won it the title of the most beautiful square in the world. This is only reinforced by the annual installation of a carpet made exclusively of flowers – and it’s quite a sight. Even outside of this period, the architecture and cobblestone streets make this area of Brussels one of the most beautiful and pleasant to spend a day in, go to restaurants in, or visit our very famous Manneken Pis – our odd, but culturally significant fountain of a peeing boy. Yes, it’s as weird as it sounds.
While you’re there, swing by Delirium Bar for a Belgian beer in an outgoing, entertaining atmosphere. Delirium bar is known for attracting tourists and locals alike and for having an immense selection of beer… and other drinks. If you’re feeling up to it, you can try some of the world’s strongest Absinthe at this bar! In Brussels, a sugar cube is dunked into the liquor, set on fire, and then mixed back into the drink. Kind of like pouring a beer into its glass, Absinthe has its own strange ritual.
From atom-shaped buildings to brewing traditions and a statue of a peeing boy, Brussels is 100 percent, unapologetically, authentically Belgian – and that’s something you can’t get anywhere else.
P.S: If you’re looking for even more to do, look into the Museum of Music, the Laeken Greenhouses, the Soignes Forest, or Le Cinquantenaire, which are all worth a visit as well!